How To Write Good Restaurant Reviews

Thursday, August 7, 2014


Image by David Schiersner via Flickr/Creative Commons

It's a good thing I've been exercising every day for the past seven months.

Birmingham Restaurant Week is coming up August 15-24 and I've been asked by the event organizers to visit and write about some of the participating restaurants. This is great news for my taste buds, but not-so-good news for my waistline. But I suppose I will have to make this sacrifice for my blog, right?



Birmingham Restaurant Week is a ten-day event that features some of Birmingham's best locally-owned and operated restaurants, offering prix fixe menus and drink specials. Last night the Birmingham Art Museum played host to the Birmingham Restaurant Week Preview Party. I had a fabulous night with friends at this sold out event sampling dishes from The J. Clyde, Silvertron Cafe, Maki Fresh, Rusty's Bar-B-Q, Dixie Fish Co., Davenport's Pizza, Oscar's at the Museum, and other participating restaurants.

We're smiling because we'd just had the bread pudding from Silvertron Cafe. 


Birmingham Restaurant Week is a great chance to try new restaurants or visit old favorites and blog about your experiences. But when you're penning your posts you want to have something more interesting and insightful to say than, "This dish was yummy!"

So I turned to food writer Jason Horn for help. Horn is a senior editor at Liquor.com and is the co-founder of FoodBlogSouth, the food blogging conference held annually in Birmingham. He's also worked for CHOW.com, Cottage Living, Cooking Light, and VisitSouth.com, and his food writing has appeared in B-Metro, Birmingham magazine, and on MagicCityPost.com.

Jason Horn

If you're planning to write about a restaurant, what should you order when you visit? 

"In order to a review a restaurant well you have to try a lot of different things," Horn says. "When The New York Times reviews a restaurant the reviewer goes 2, 3, or 4 times with other people so they get to try pretty much the whole menu."

If you’re trying to review a place based on one visit, Horn suggests that you at least bring a date and try anything your date orders.

If the restaurant is famous for one dish, order that dish, but also try other things on the menu. 

"If it’s famous for one dish there’s going to be a lot of coverage out there about that one dish and you want to do something that will be different," Horn says. 

Ordering the special of the day can be hit or miss, but if the special is a new dish that may be added to the menu later, you should definitely try that, Horn recommends. 

All in all, just order as you would normally,  but bring along a friend who doesn't mind sharing so you can try his or her food, too.


Mark your calendars! Birmingham Restaurant Week 2014 is Aug. 15-24. 


What kinds of questions should a writer ask her waiter or waitress? 

It depends on the restaurant, Horn says. For example, don't expect your server at a casual neighborhood grill to recommend a good wine, but feel free to ask about his or her favorite dish. 

Horn says it's best to be as specific as possible when asking questions of the staff. So instead of asking "What's good?" give your server an idea of what you're in the mood for. If you're torn between two dishes, ask which one he or she likes better. Instead of asking what wine goes well with your dish say something more detailed like, "I'd like a red and something in this price range and I don't like Cabernet," Horn suggests. 

"How well informed the servers are can be the line between a good and a great restaurant," Horn says. "If the chef is doing wonderful things but the servers don’t know anything about them or don’t have an opinion or can’t help you pick the right dish, that’s a big problem."


Can you give some tips on how to effectively describe the taste of food? 

If a dish has an unexpected flavor combination, talk about that and if it works or not, Horn says. "Compare it to other things if it’s similar to something you’ve had before but some important aspect has changed."

For example, let's say you're writing about a cocktail and the restaurant offers a Manhantan but the bartender uses gin. You can talk about that difference and if it worked for you or not. 

"Or if you have a burger -- what about that burger is different and is that good or bad?" Horn says. "It’s all about being specific. Talk about aspects of the dish that you liked or didn’t like. Talk about combinations of things that worked or didn’t work. You can even say I wish there was more whatever in this. Or I wish this was sweeter or I wish this was less sweet."


When reviewing a restaurant, comment on the layout, setup and atmosphere, in addition to discussing the food.
Image by Edinburgh Blog via Flickr/Creative Commons


When writing a restaurant review what else should a writer comment on in addition to the food?

"Service is always important and that should be an aspect of the review," Horn says. Notice how the staff deals with rude people. If someone is a jerk and the staff handles that person exceptionally well, "that's definitely worth mentioning," Horn says. 

Horn admits, though, that for him the food is still most important. "For me good food can redeem bad service, but good service can't redeem bad food." 

Pay attention to the set up, layout and atmosphere. "Does what the restaurant sell itself as match up with the restaurant that you get?" Horn says. "A lot of restaurants are pretty loud. If you’re in a barbecue joint and it’s loud and raucous, that’s fine. It’s supposed to be that way. If you go to an expensive date spot and it’s like that, that’s not.  If you go into what’s supposed to be a romantic restaurant and you can’t hear your date that’s a problem."

Writing about a restaurant for your blog is quite different than writing for a major publication. On a blog you can talk more about your personal tastes. So if you hate green beans and a dish has green beans it's OK to have a little fun and talk about that a bit. 

But be sure to take your personal tastes into consideration when assessing the food. "If there is something you didn't like step back and consider if there was a flaw in the dish or if it was your personal taste," Horn says. 

But also just have fun. 

"What it comes down to it it’s all about whether it appeals to you or not.  There’s no universal thing that’s delicious to everybody. If there was there would only be one restaurant and it would only serve that dish."

For more information on Birmingham Restaurant Week 2014 visit BhamRestaurantWeek.com

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